Over in Iowa City, the NIT bid the Hawkeyes received is seen as a stepping stone on the path to greater things. It is a fun way to end Fran McCaffery's second season as head coach and a special encore for departing senior Matt Gatens.
In Evanston, things are more than a little different. Northwestern has now qualified for the NIT and not the NCAA Tournament for four years in a row and it's beginning to look like this is the ceiling for teams coached by Bill Carmody. This season was especially disappointing because of how talented the frontcourt pair of John Shurna and Drew Crawford are. Should Northwestern supporters be glad that Carmody has been able to field competent teams consistently or upset that he hasn't been able to get into the dance?
Northwestern blogger Lake the Posts brings up both sides of the Carmody debate while mulling over the classic stay-or-go question that every troubled fanbase has to go through. At first, Carmody loses points because he has failed to draw up winning plays in the close games that Northwestern has lost this season.
You can almost throw a dart at any of the close losses this season and really put the coaching tactics under the microscope. It’s more than a philosophical should you call a TO vs letting the team take the last shot in flow type of thing. Bill Carmody for years has been known as a lethal coach coming out of timeouts when he can design an out of bounds play. That went by the wayside in close games this year.
It's really tough to pin the blame of a tough loss on the coach. I usually blame the coach when my team appears to fall asleep against a lesser opponent or gets wiped out in a big game, but close games can come down to any number of things. A bounce of the basketball, a controversial block/charge call, or one missed free throw are all things that can change a one possession game. I'd be quicker to praise Carmody for getting to overtime with Michigan twice than to blame him for his less talented team not pulling through.
Speaking of being less talented, Lake the Posts makes it clear that Carmody is at a disadvantage with respect to Northwestern's strict admissions standards.
I do have one bone to pick with the media, though. Comparisons to Duke. I can’t speak to the admissions standards for ballers at Vandy, Stanford or Notre Dame, but I can tell you several of the players annually that start for Duke are players that we couldn’t get in to NU even if we had them wanting to come to Evanston.
I found this point to be very interesting because I know Duke is a very tough school to get into (at least for folks who aren't McDonald's All-Americans). If what Lake says is correct, then it is hard to blame Carmody very much. It's one thing to recruit players to a school that has never been to the NCAA Tournament. It's another thing completely when each recruit must meet strict academic standards. There's a reason the Ivy League only sends one team to the dance every season while the geographically similar Atlantic 10 sends three or four.
Of course, recruiting at Northwestern may never be easy, but it can only be made more difficult if the man in charge lacks the sort of winning attitude that all winning coaches seem to exhibit.
When I watch Tom Izzo, Coach K, Leonard Hamilton and other coaches in tight games down the stretch, they evoke a feeling of support and calmness. Sure, they may yell at a player for a mental error, but they evoke that “you know what to do” sense of reassurance. It’s a winning attitude. It’s the moxie to say things like Izzo did when after the loss to Ohio State in the regular season he said they were going to Indy to get their title back. Coach Carmody meanwhile, spent years literally turning his back on players when we shoot a free throw. He makes gestures and displays body language that makes it seem like he’s ostracizing his players in clutch situations. It’s worn very thin on me. I can’t think of a time when it’s been a final possession and he looked like he was in sync supporting his team.
This drives me crazy because I feel like every fan of a team with a coach in Carmody's position will resort to pointing to things like body language and facial expressions to try to explain why a team can't get over the top. It happened with my New York Mets in 2007 when fans grew tired of manager Willie Randolph's stoic dugout poker face. "A proper manager should be more fiery in the midst of a losing streak," the fans said! The Mets fell apart in 2007 and Randloph was fired in the middle of 2008 and replaced by "fiery" bench coach Jerry Manuel. The end of 2008 was almost exactly the same as 2007, with the Mets missing the playoffs on the last game of the season. In 2009, things completely unraveled.
I know basketball coaches are much more involved than baseball managers, especially when they are coaching young people, but the moral of the story remains: Don't fire a coach because of how he acts on the sidelines. Look at the results instead. Would Willie Randolph had gotten fired if the Mets had scored a couple of more runs in 2007? Would we be having this discussion if the Wildcats had made one more basket versus Michigan?
Lake continues by stating a more tangible problem Northwestern has had in the Carmody era: his teams play lousy defense.
His Princeton offense isn’t some methodical slow-down the game tactic that average fans think it is. He’s actually produced one of the more effective scoring teams in the B1G in recent years. The problem continues to be fundamentals on defense, despite the effective (initially) 1-3-1. The ‘Cats don’t box out. Never have under Carmody. They are 333 in the nation in rebounding. Before you point to size, I’ll tell you, if they boxed out and opponents size was the reason for the rebounds, I’d grant you that. We don’t rebound. We’re traditionally one of the worst in the conference in defensive efficiency.
This is an actual problem that might need a new coach to correct. There's not much excuse for Shurna, Crawford and the rest to be so inept at grabbing rebounds. On Northwestern, only Luka Mirkovic has had a defensive rebounding percentage over 15% this season (he's at 18.9%). Meanwhile, at Indiana, another offense-oriented team without terrific size, Victory Oladipo, Cody Zeller and Christian Watford all rank above 15% defensive rebounding.
However, the good news for Carmody is that not every Big Ten team needs to be like Michigan State to be successful. Indiana as well as Michigan are offense-first teams that don't rebound well, and both have found success this season. Of course, it will be tough for Carmody to bring in the offensive talent that both of those schools attract, but it's not like John Shurna didn't just lead the league in scoring.
I guess I've made it pretty clear that I think Carmody deserves to keep his job, and it's not just because he makes a habit of losing to my school, Penn State. I think he's done a good job to build up a program despite tough restrictions in place. He's bringing back a talented group next fall and has Northwestern on the right track. Unfortunately, Carmody's job might hinge on just how far he makes it in this NIT. Getting to New York for the semifinal would be uncharted territory for the 'Cats and might be far enough to save his job. Keep that in mind as Northwestern takes on Akron tonight.